An Independent Review of Paul Courtright's book on Ganesa - Chapter 17 part 2

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

Elephant Mythology and Omission of Important Texts

Courtright initiates the discussion by first devoting a section to the symbolism of the elephant in Indian culture. The treatment is rather uncertain and he surprisingly omits the mention of texts specifically referring to elephants—the Gajasastra or the Hastyayurveda. The omission is unfortunate because Courtright primarily relies on, amongst other texts, the Puranas, when some of them (e.g., Agni Purana) actually refer to the authority of Palakapya Muni, the author of the Hastyayurveda. Courtright enumerates a number of metaphors for elephants in Indian culture but omits two very important attributes of the creature for which they are especially well respected, their profound memory, and their longevity. The elephant is also counted as one of the nine types of wealth or treasures (navanidhi) in the Hindu tradition. A discussion on all these would have enriched Courtright’s study considerably, because these themes are very important in how Hindus perceive this noble creature.

Even more detrimental to the quality of his study is the scarce use (if not a total omission) of the two Puranas that specifically deal with Ganesha the Mudgala Purana and Ganesha Purana. Courtright mentions editions of both of them in his bibliography, but practically ignores the former, and uses the latter very rarely. Even when he does, most of the citations of the Ganesha Purana appear to be taken from secondary studies on the text, not from the original text itself. The scanty use of these important traditional texts detracts from the comprehensiveness and objectivity of his analysis. We shall give a few examples in this review, showing how data from these two Puranas invalidates some of the speculations of Courtright.

The elephant is also considered a noble animal, and a symbol of devotion (bhakti) via the story of Gajendramoska in Bhagavata Purana, skandha VIII, chapter 204 and other texts. Courtright ignores these aspects of elephant mythology here, dealing with it later in relation to Ganesha where it really does not belong. In his zeal to force-fit this story into the model of tension between asceticism and eroticism, he interprets it in a very inconsistent and illogical manner.

Instead of discussing these ways in which Hindus look at the creature, Courtright says:

Elephant trunk and serpent share certain undeniable characteristics and carry associations of force and power, both political and sexual.

We are not told why this association is ‘undeniable’. This baseless assertion would serve as his launching pad for declaring elsewhere:

The elephant trunk, which perpetually hangs limp, and the broken tusk are reminiscent of Siva’s own phallic character, but as these phallic analogs are either excessive or in the wrong place, they pose no threat to Siva’s power and his erotic claims on Parvati.

Courtright says that an elephant, even if it were male, cannot be assigned any definitive sex because its movement is often compared to the graceful movement of a woman, and its temple, like a woman’s breasts, give forth a different but no less desirable fluid. If this hypothesis sounds unreasonable, then it is outsmarted by the ensuing inference that since Ganesha is an elephant-headed god, his gender too must remain less than precisely articulated. An illogical premise invariably leads to ridiculous conclusions, and Courtright doesn’t fail to disappoint on this count. He concludes that Ganesha’s head symbolizes phallic masculinity and feminine grace.

Though Courtright uses several dubious, peripheral, and regional myths of doubtful veracity and non-verifiable antiquity to construct his thesis (we shall refer to some of these below), he practically leaves out the Tantric texts. This omission is again unfortunate, because these texts clearly distinguish between the deity’s trunk and the phallus (whereas Courtright equates the deity’s trunk to a limp phallus) and also describe clearly the functionality of these two organs. But then, incorporation of data from the Tantras would have dealt a deathblow to his ‘celibate-eunuch-limp phallus’ thesis on Ganesha. If one chooses data from Sanskrit texts in the piecemeal manner that Courtright does, any thesis can be ‘proven’ from them.

Misdating Puranic Texts

In the sole appendix to his book, the author claims that the Sri Ganapati Atharvasirsha Upanishad probably belongs to the sixteenth or seventeenth century. He assigns no reason for this late date, something that other scholars have also noted and have found inconsistent with their own views. Elsewhere, Courtright claims that the Mudgala Purana should be dated between the fourteenth and the seventeenth century, but again assigns no reasons. However, on page 214 of the book, Courtright dates the Purana from fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. This would mean that the Atharvasirsha Upanishad is roughly contemporaneous or even later than the Mudgala Purana. However, the Mudgala Purana (2.31.12; 2.72.5, etc.) clearly mentions the Ganapati Atharvasiras text, and therefore should be sufficiently later than the Upanishad, contrary to what Courtright implies.

To ascertain whether Courtright has shown sufficient fidelity to the Puranic texts, we crosschecked his descriptions of the story of Ganesha with the original texts of the Puranas. To illustrate our findings, we chose only a few of these texts below, for the sake of brevity. We have also chosen a text from the Buddhacharita that is misinterpreted by Courtright.

A Beheading by the Compassionate One (Buddhacarita)

In Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacarita, there occurs a story in which Devadatta sent a mad elephant to kill Bhagavan Buddha. However, when the elephant approached the Buddha, the latter’s spiritual power tamed the creature. According to the text, as quoted by Courtright, the Buddha then stroked the head of the elephant. A reader would normally interpret the Buddha ‘stroking the head’ of the tamed elephant as an act of blessing or benevolence, of compassion and love. Courtright, however, suggests, “. . . his hand strokes the head in what may be a faint echo of a gesture of decapitation”. (For more on this, please read page 204, chapter 17)

Eroticization of Gajalakshmi in Vishnu Purana:

Courtright correctly identifies a passage from the Vishnu Purana 1.9.103 in which, when Devi Lakshmi emerges during the churning of the Ocean and the River Ganga, other sacred rivers appear at the site. The celestial elephants then pour water from these sacred rivers on her with golden vessels. A few pages later he transforms this into a sexually titillating narrative:

The male attributes of the elephant are so obvious as to need no comment. Not only the trunk but the tusk has phallic associations in some of the Ganesa stories. The myth of the elephant guardians anointing Lakshmi by spraying water over her seems the fullest expression of male fertility surrounding female fecundity. As O’Flaherty has shown, moreover, rain tends to be associated with male seed in the Indian tradition, whereas rivers appear as symbolic expressions of the feminine aspect of water . . .

Per conventions of Hindu tradition, Lakshmi and Ganesha stand in relation to each other as mother and son. Courtright’s erotic explanation in effect transforms the innocuous description of the Puranas into a tale of incest.

The text of the Vishnu Purana clearly states that the elephants take the waters of feminized rivers. So it is surprising that, according to Courtright and Doniger O’Flaherty, the waters from feminine rivers would be transformed suddenly into virile semen after the elephants pour them over Lakshmi. What we are trying to suggest is that the ‘analysis’ by Courtright is nothing but his own perverse imagination. We are in fact surprised why he failed to see the connection between ‘hiranyam’ (=gold, light, brightness) and ‘retas’ (=seed, semen) in the Hindu tradition164 to further argue that the feminine river water changed its sex to masculine semen in the gold-pitchers used by the elephants to pour river waters over Lakshmi! (For more on this, please read page 205, chapter 17)

Inventing Mankind from the Divine Arse (The Linga Purana and The Bhagavata Purana)

Courtright claims:

Some Puranic sources maintain that demons and humans have come from the divine rectum (BhP 2.6.8; LP 1.70.199; cf. O’Flaherty 1976, p. 140).”

This claim of Courtright and Wendy Doniger does not stand to scrutiny. Neither the Linga Purana nor the Bhagavata Purana derives mankind from the ‘divine rectum’. (For more on the relevant passages from the Linga Purana and the Bhagavata Purana, please read page 206 and 207, chapter 17)

Misinterpretations of the Kurma Purana:

The Dropping of Shiva’s Phallus:

Following a 1975 book by Wendy Doniger, Courtright interprets a tale in Kurma Purana 2.37 in the following words:

The variant of the beheading tale introduces the act of self mutilation by which Ganesa tears out his own tusk and holds it like a yogin’s staff, like his father holds the trident. The gesture is reminiscent of the time his father broke off his own phallus when he saw it was no longer of use except to create progeny (KP 2.37; O’Flaherty 1975, pp. 137–141). This act of self-mutilation makes Ganesa more like his father.

The claim that, “[Siva] broke off his own phallus when he saw it was no longer of use except to create progeny” is a contrived interpretation of Kurma Purana 2.37. (For more on the story, please read page 207 and 208, chapter 17)

The Beheading of Daksha:

In another case of misinterpretation of the same text, Courtright says:

He [Siva] attacks Daksa’s sacrifice, beheading him and turning his head into the sacrificial offering, thus completing the rite that he had originally set out to destroy (KP 1.14). (For more on the story, please read page 208, chapter 17)

The Kurma Purana version of the narrative does not mention any beheading of Daksha by Lord Shiva, contrary to Courtright’s assertion.

The Vamana Purana on the Birth of Ganesa and ‘Sexual Fluids’

Describing a version of the story of the birth of the deity, Courtright states:

The first type of story is represented by the accounts of Ganesa arising out of the sexual fluids of Siva and Parvati after their bath, but outside Parvati’s body (Vamana Purana 28.64–66) . . .

Unfortunately, the bibliography section of Courtright’s book shows that he used the non-critical edition of the Purana. We compared this edition with the critical edition of Vamana Purana. The relevant text (Vamana Purana 28.65) clearly reads:

snaatastasya tatoadhastaat sthithah sa malapuurushah
umasvedam bhavasvedam jalamrtisamanvitam

The text explicitly says that the drops of sweat of Uma (=Parvati) and Bhava (=Shiva) fell on moist earth and from this combination sprang Ganesha (verse 66). There is no explicit mention of ‘sexual fluids’, which is characteristic of Courtright’s Freudian analysis.

Later in the chapter too, he terms their sweat as, ‘fluids of their lovemaking’ and as ‘sexual fluids’. Courtright may argue that various erotic Indian texts do mention passionate lovemaking causing the lovers to sweat. This textual passage, however, directly stresses the asexual birth of the deity. Thus, it states that when the intercourse of Siva and Parvati was interrupted by the machinations of the gods, Shiva discharged his semen as an oblation to Agni (Vamana Purana 28.50), and after Ganesha is born, Shiva names him as Vinaayaka because Parvati gave birth to him without the help of a naayaka or husband (Vamana Purana 28.71–72ab). Hence, to see the birth of Ganesha from the ‘sexual fluids’ of Parvati and Shiva is a bit farfetched. The text certainly does not say so or hint at it. Rather, the text seems to glorify Shiva and Parvati by suggesting that even the sweat and dirt of their bodies is so potent that the mere combination of the two can result in the birth of a great deity such as Ganesha. Courtright’s interpretations merely seek to amplify (if not invent altogether) the sexual connotations of these sacred stories.

Another recent review of Courtright’s book clarifies our objection in the following words:

The authors or Compilers of the Puranas are very frank and open. When they mean such sexual symbolism they state it openly. When they want to say that a person or even a deity is too much interested in sex they frankly say so and some times punish them also, as in the case of Indra and Brahma . . . It is advisable, therefore, not to read too much between the lines. As far as possible, such attempts of trying to find relevance of the ancient texts in connection with the modern phenomena, may it be science or the Freudian principles, should be avoided by scholars. (For more on this, please read page 210, chapter 17)

Misrepresentation of the Gajendramoksha Episode (Bhagavata Purana, Skandha VIII):

The Gajendramoksha narrative, occurring in the eighth book (skandha) of the Bhagavata Purana (BhP), is a beautiful tale of devotion and divine grace that continues to inspire millions of Hindus even to this day. The central theme of the narrative is that no measure of worldly power and happiness can save us in the time of dire calamity, only God can. Here is how Courtright looks at the story:

Once, the king of the elephants, along with his wives and children came to a splendid garden at the foot of the mountain that was surrounded by an ocean like the ocean of milk. With musk fluid oozing from his forehead, with bees swarming around it, the elephant plunged into the ocean to cool himself. He sprayed water over the females and the females and the young ones bathed and drank. Then a mighty alligator, which had become angry at this intrusion into the ocean, seized hold of the elephant’s foot and held it fast in his jaws. When the wives of the elephant king saw that he was being dragged further and further into the ocean, they tried in vain to pull him back out. As the alligator and the elephant struggled with one another, the elephant became increasingly weaker while the alligator grew stronger. When he saw that he could not free himself from the trap of alligator’s jaws, the elephant called out to Vishnu for refuge. When Vishnu saw the elephant’s plight, he came there and pulled the elephant and the alligator out of the water. He transformed the alligator back into Huhu, the celestial gandharva who had been cursed by the sage Devala [Narada] because he had been sporting in the water with some women when Devala wanted to bathe. When Huhu pulled on Devala’s leg he was cursed to take the form of an alligator, only to be rescued from it by seizing hold of the leg of an elephant. (BhP 8.204)

Apparently the address ‘BhP 8.204’ is a typographical error in place of BhP 8.2–4. After summarizing a longish story, Courtright then interprets the tale in the following sexualized manner:

In this myth of conflict between the alligator and the elephant, we see some similarities to the myths of Airavata and Durvasas. At the conclusion of the myth, we learn that the alligator is really a disguise of an erotic gandharva, who had been cursed by the ascetic Devala for touching him while he was bathing, much as the flying elephants had been cursed by the sage Dirghatapas when they brushed against the tree under which he was sitting. By transforming the gandharva Huhu into an alligator, the ascetic reverses their roles, for now the alligator is the one whose watery territory is invaded by the elephant. His biting the leg of the elephant echoes the theme of beheading, which we have seen at work in other myths. The conflict between the alligator and the elephant surrounded by his entourage of cows—like the conflicts between the sage and the gandharva, between Siva and Gajasura, and between Durvasas and Indra—draws on the important theme in Hindu mythology of the tension between the powers of eroticism and asceticism. The tension between the alligator and the race elephant cannot be resolved, and so they both edge their way to destruction. At this desperate moment the myth turns to the solution of bhakti . . .

In this manner, Courtright goes on and on with his racy language, bringing disparate, unrelated facts picked up selectively, and then forces them to fit together artificially and unconvincingly into models of ‘beheading’, ‘tension between the powers of eroticism and asceticism’ and so on. How does he do this exactly?

First, he enhances the sexual connotations of the passage in Bhagavata Purana. Though his summary is fairly short, considering that the text extends over 92 verses, Courtright does not refrain from amplifying the aspects that suit his theory. An example is the use of the words, ‘with musk fluid oozing from his forehead’. The original text reads (Bhagavata Purana 8.2.23–24) (For the original text, please read 212 and 213, chapter 17)

When Courtright emphasizes the incidental ‘erotic’ aspects of the inspiring tale of devotion, there is a ‘sexual’ purpose behind it. Why? Courtright compares the scene of Gajendra’s struggle with the alligator with the episodes of the sage and the gandharva, Shiva and Gajasura, and Durvasas and Indra to force-fit the Gajendramoksha narrative into the schemes of beheading and the ‘tension between the powers of asceticism and eroticism’. In effect, Courtright has taken words from a one-half a verse out of ninety-two verses of the narrative to weave his thesis of tension between eroticism and asceticism! (For more on this, please read page 213 and 214, chapter 17)

The episode of Indra and Durvasa is also not analogous to the Gajendramoksha tale. Here, Indra indirectly insults Durvasa while engrossed in sexual acts with a heavenly nymph. Indra was having sex with an apsaraa when the Sage visits him. Indra hurriedly offers his respect whereupon the Sage gifts him a paarijaata flower with the ability to bestow power, glory, and wealth to the owner if it is worn with respect on the head. Indra, however, throws the flower on his elephant Airavata’s head as soon as the Sage leaves so that he can promptly resume his amorous activities with the nymph. In doing so, Indra insulted the Sage Durvasa whereupon the latter cursed him. Gajendra was not insulting any ascetic when the alligator caught his leg. The alligator was not an ascetic either. So where are the parallels that Courtright claims?

Likewise, the third episode of Gajasura cited by Courtright is also not related to Gajendramoksha through the model of tension between asceticism and eroticism, despite Courtright’s contrary claims. In Puranic narratives, Devi Durga had killed Gajasura’s father Mahisha. To avenge his father’s death, Gajasura practised asceticism and was granted a boon by Brahma so that no one overcome by lust would be able to defeat the asura. Invincible, he became arrogant and sinful and conquered the gods. A battle ensued between Shiva and Gajasura in which the latter was killed. Here too, while Gajendra and Gajasura were both elephants and intoxicated with their power, the alligator was not exactly the same ascetic Lord Shiva. Thus, there is only a superficial and limited semblance between the tales of Gajendramoksha and Gajasura.

The entire book of Courtright is similarly filled with irrelevant parallels, loose or non-existent methodologies, and superficial comparisons drawn by considering selective data while ignoring or explaining away divergent facts. In ‘scholarly’ parlance, this ‘methodology’ is called Freudian free association.

Read chapter 17 part 2 from page 201 to 215

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

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